The Best Reason to Read Fairy Tales?

August 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about traditional fairy tales. True, I buy into the argument made by many literary and child development scholars that our children are reassured by seeing young heroes and heroines persevere through creepy, frightening situations. True, out of the hundreds of books I loved as a kid, it was a fairy tale—Hansel and Gretel, to be precise—that made the most lasting impression on me. And yet, with the sheer wealth of original, high quality children’s books being published today, I tend to forget about reading fairy tales to my kids.

Until I remember what may be the very best reason to read them: if your kids don’t know the original stories, how will they appreciate all the fantastic fractured versions that have popped up in recent years? My new favorite is one that was actually discovered by my husband (that’s right, he recently took the kids to a bookstore and managed to buy a book that I didn’t know about—and a brilliant one at that!).

Hot off the presses, it’s an urbanized retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, titled Jack and the Baked Beanstalk, by Colin Stimpson (Ages 4-8). This debut author-illustrator is a Brit (like him already) and a former art director for Walt Disney; the latter is relevant because his impressive cinematic illustrations combine the grittiness of a cityscape with a Disney-esque glossiness.

In this modernized twist on the ancient fairy tale, Jack is no country bumpkin: he lives under a highway overpass and helps his mom run a fast food burger joint. When times get tough for the family business, Jack uses the last of his mom’s money to buy a can of baked beans off a homeless man (Jack knows the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, and he’s hoping these baked beans might lead to some lucky magic for him). The baked beans do not disappoint, and here’s where my almost five year old starts moving toward the edge of his seat, suspecting that there will be a mean scary giant behind the “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fummy” that Jack hears as he climbs the beanstalk that has sprouted overnight.

Stimpson does a stellar job of leading my son on, depicting Jack dwarfed next to the Giant’s enormous eyes, lumpy nose, and toothless mouth. But this Giant is no boy-eating monster: he’s a lonely money counter (dressed ironically in a pinstriped suit like some Wall Street tycoon), who welcomes a break from counting money to cook up a gourmet feast for his visitor. And here’s where my son’s laughs (maybe more relieved than anything?) start coming in spades: beginning when the Giant dons a flowery apron and ending when the Giant eventually becomes the celebrity chef of the newly revamped burger joint.

The double-page spread that ends the book is the most magical and enticing of all, showcasing crowds of customers lined up outside Jack’s restaurant, which includes a Rube Goldberg device designed to transport golden eggs from a giant-sized hen into the Giant’s frying pan. (My husband also taught me about Rube Goldberg. He is very handy at times.) The first time we finished the book, JP threw his head back and exclaimed, “I totally thought this was going to be one of those scary giant books, but then it got soooooo funny. Read it again!” It seems good things come to those who’ve made it through the originals.

The wordless double-page spread that ends the book and showcases the aforementioned Rube Goldberg device. My son has literally spent HOURS pouring over this illustration!

Other Favorite Fractured Fairy Tales (& Fables):
The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, by Eugene Trivizas & Helen Oxenbury (Ages 4-8)
The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale, by Steven Guarnaccia (Ages 4-8)
Cinder Edna, by Ellen Jackson & Kevin O’Malley (Ages 4-8)
The Wolf Who Cried Boy, by Bob Hartman & Tim Raglin (Ages 4-8)
The Jolly Postman, by Alan & Janet Ahlberg (Ages 4-8)
The 3 Bears and Goldilocks, by Margaret Willey & Heather M. Solomon (Ages 3-6)
Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, by Mo Willems (Ages 4-8)

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